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Offseason | 2024

Cowboys, LVE part ways following 2023 season


FRISCO, Texas — The 2024 season will see the Dallas Cowboys take the field with a noticeable absence at linebacker, namely Leighton Vander Esch. The 28-year-old suffered his latest neck injury during the 2023 campaign — one that ended his season.

It also ended his career with the Cowboys, the team opting to release the former Pro Bowler in March with a failed physical designation. 

Vander Esch departs after 65 starts in Dallas.

His existing deal was set to hit the Cowboys' salary cap for a total of $4.4 million, and they'll recover $2.2 million of it toward cap savings while the remaining $2.2 million will be dead money.

A former first-round pick (19th-overall) of the Cowboys in 2019, Vander Esch entered the league as a heralded linebacker out of Boise State, where he earned the nod as Mountain West Defensive Player of the Year (2017) and a First-Team All-Mountain West honor in the same season. 

He  hit the ground running with the Cowboys, finishing his first season with a Pro Bowl nod and being named to the PFWA All-Rookie Team in 2018. 

Things became much more challenging for him thereafter, due largely to injury. Having already battled through issues with his neck at Boise State, similar issues began to appear at the NFL level. A nerve issue in his neck forced him to undergo surgery in 2019 with hopes of repairing the issue, ending his second season with a move to injured reserve. 

He returned in 2020, but another surgery sent him back to injured reserve for a stint before he'd return that same season to finish with 60 combined tackles in 10 starts. 

The following two seasons were much more promising for Vander Esch — free of major injury and participating in 30 combined starts — delivering a resurgent 2022 season on a one-year contract extension.

A two-year extension was agreed to in March 2023, and Vander Esch, who was also the green dot (play communicator) for former defensive coordinator Dan Quinn, was off to another strong start before suffering the latest injury in early October against the San Francisco 49ers.

He wouldn't return to that contest, or the remainder of the 2023 season and, now, it's decided that he won't return to his uniform. The player lovingly referred to as the "Wolf Hunter" leaves a void that won't be easily filled by the Cowboys, but it's one they'll have no choice but to get to work in filling; and their hope is that newly-signed Eric Kendricks can help.

Vander Esch racked up 469 combined tackles in Dallas, along with 13 pass break ups and three interceptions, and continues to weigh his options regarding his future in the NFL.

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